If there was any doubt about the No. 24 Cal men’s tennis team, it has all but vanished as the unseeded squad defeated Drake and upset No. 15 Illinois to kick off the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve been preparing for this for a while,” said men’s tennis director Peter Wright. “We’ve been building over the course of the year; some people didn’t think we were that good of a team. That’s fine. We don’t care about what other people think.”
Cal, which had won three of its past four matches, entered the tournament on a hot streak and easily defeated Drake, 4-1, taking the doubles point and following it up with three wins in straight sets.
The bigger challenge came in the second round against Illinois. The doubles point didn’t start well for Cal, which lost the first match on court one. On courts two and three, the duos of Paul Barretto and Can Kaya, as well as Ben Draper and Jack Molloy, mustered some playoff energy and won their matches after tiebreakers.
“It was a solid game plan. We knew it was going to hinge on the doubles, and that was really important for us. Our guys came through (on courts two and three) and won a couple of really tight tiebreakers,” Wright said. “That was key for us, really, because it put us in the right position to play aggressively in singles.”
The Bears showcased their singles improvement this match by taking four of the six first sets. Bjorn Hoffmann and Jack Molloy were able to clinch their matches in straight sets to put the Bears up, 3-0.
“I was pleased. I don’t know if I was surprised, but I knew we’re in a good position. We’re playing well, and we rode the confidence of winning the doubles point into the singles,” Wright said.
The Bears weren’t infallible, however, and Yuta Kikuchi retired on court one to give the Fighting Illini their lone point. Draper was able to quickly answer and clinch the match for Cal on court four.
“I was trying not to look at the scoreboard, but I knew that we’d won a few matches, so it was going to be tight,” Draper said. “It felt good; today was a real team effort. Everyone came together and everyone played so well today, and it just shows how dangerous we are as a team.”
With the win over the hosts, Cal punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 to face No. 2 Texas in Austin on Saturday. The Bears are one of two unseeded teams to reach the third round.
“I think everyone was very positive. We’ve had a great Pac-12 (championship), and we knew that if we brought our games and we played well, we could do some serious damage. We proved that today,” Draper said. “We’re really looking forward to the next round. We’ve got a lot of positive energy in our camp.”
The Bears are looking for revenge against the Longhorns after Texas knocked them out of the NCAA tournament last year in the round of 32.
“These guys are excited about playing Texas. We lost to them last year at Texas, and they’re a good team — they’ve had a wonderful season. For us, this is a match that we’ve been looking forward to,” Wright said.